Radical Catholics: Remembering the Catonsville Nine

On a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1968, a group of nine radical activists struck a uniquely provocative blow against the dysfunctional political system that had enmeshed the United States in the war in Vietnam. They burst into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md., seized several hundred military draft records, and then burned what they had looted in a fire fueled by homemade napalm.

The Catonsville Nine, as they would be known, were not the only group of demonstrators to besiege a local draft board in the Vietnam era, but they certainly were the most celebrated. Their notoriety resulted at least in part from the religious dimension of their witness against the havoc wrought by war and imperialism. All of the Catonsville Nine were Roman Catholics, and two of their number -- brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan -- were priests. The demonstrators explained that they attacked the draft records because they found it impossible to reconcile the central tenets of their religious faith with their country's conduct of the war in Southeast Asia.

Such a brazenly illegal -- and overtly political -- dissent by Catholics would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. But the reforms of Vatican II had prompted Catholics to become more directly engaged with the social, political and cultural tumult that was changing America society in the 1960s. Emboldened by a fresh spirit of openness, a new breed of activist priests and laypeople thrust themselves onto the front lines of myriad protest movements, including the drive to end the war in Vietnam.

catonsville nineNone of the Catonsville Nine had any illusions about their protest (which involved the torching of fewer than 400 individual draft files) bringing about a speedy conclusion to the war. But they hoped that their witness would spark a sustained and meaningful dialogue about the connections between war, imperialism and poverty -- profoundly important issues that were affecting not only people in Vietnam but also millions of Americans.

In this, the Catonsville Nine scored a resounding victory. Their protest drew widespread attention, as did their subsequent trial in federal court in Baltimore. (So great was the publicity that officials in the Kremlin apparently followed the case with great interest.) Thanks to the wide latitude granted by the presiding judge, those proceedings provided a remarkable forum for the Nine to address the many ailments afflicting the American body politic. Their moving testimony touched on matters ranging from domestic race relations and economic inequality to the role of United States in supporting the Guatemalan oligarchy.

ashesMore than 40 years after they struck the draft board in suburban Baltimore, the Catonsville Nine still are revered by many as paragons of peace and social justice activism. The memory of their protest has been kept alive by a play ("The Trial of the Catonsville Nine") that is based on their trial. Every year, hundreds of theater-goers have the chance to hear actors repeat the protesters' stirring courtroom testimony. Such is their lasting notoriety that the Nine also are referenced from time to time in novels and songs. (Singer-songwriter Dar Williams recounts their witness her tune "I Had No Right.")

However, as time has passed, our memory of these radical Catholic activists has become increasingly murky. The Berrigan brothers became radical icons -- at age 91, Daniel Berrigan still is generating headlines for his protest activities -- but their confederates in Catonsville faded from view. Philip Berrigan was widely mourned when he died in 2002, but few people seemed to have noticed when Mary Moylan, another member of the Catonsville Nine, passed away a few years earlier.

Lost, too, is a sense of how controversial the actions of the Catonsville Nine were within their own church. Although many liberal Catholics cheered the antidraft protest as a justified blow against the war, many members of the faith were appalled by the demonstration, thinking it a glaring betrayal of both church and country. One notable Catholic -- the novelist Walker Percy -- publicly compared the Nine's fiery protest to the incendiary tactics of the Ku Klux Klan.

And even some allies of the Catonsville Nine questioned their provocative tactics. Many wondered how the actual details of the protest squared with the activists' professed allegiance to the norms of civil disobedience. The Nine didn't merely stage a sit-in at the Catonsville draft office; they charged in, restrained and grappled with the clerks (one of whom later was treated for minor injuries), and then demolished the federal property they had seized. Esteemed Catholic peace activists like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton voiced their support for the Nine but refrained from fully endorsing their irregular methods, questioning if they really could be characterized as nonviolent.

Make no mistake: the Catonsville Nine still are worth remembering. Their protest and trial provided a singularly sweeping and sharp critique of the failings of American society in the 1960s. But it's probably a mistake to remember them merely as one-dimensional religious icons. They were complex and imperfect, and perhaps even a little confounding -- just like their times.